Columbus school superintendent fired

June 17, 2013 11:01:28 PM

Sarah Fowler - [email protected]


Columbus Municipal Superintendent Dr. Martha Liddell has been fired.  


After a four-and-a-half hour executive session, the Columbus Municipal School District Board of Trustees voted, 3-2, to terminate the superintendent during Monday's board meeting. 


A heated debate ensued when board member Glenn Lautzenhiser attempted to make a motion to go into executive session moments after the meeting began. Board vice president Jason Spears quickly seconded the motion, but board president Currie Fisher immediately objected. Lautzenhiser, who has been increasingly vocal in recent meetings, asked board attorney David Dunn to intervene. 


"I was in the midst of saying that we're in the open forum," Fisher explained to Dunn. 


Dunn replied, "I believe Mr. Lautzenhiser has the right, according to the rules of order, to make a motion. You're obligated to ask if there is a second to that motion. He is allowed to make a motion." 


"Can you state the statue or policy?" Fisher asked. 


Dunn replied that he could not name the exact statute number but reiterated that according to Robert's Rules of Order, Lautzenhiser was allowed to make a motion and that it must be recognized. 


"Any member may make a motion and the president is obligated to recognize and allow that motion to go forward," he said. 


"No sir, this is not what it says," she replied. 


Dunn said, "I beg to differ." 


When Dunn disagreed with Fisher, Lautzenhiser spoke up and made the motion for the second time. 


"Our board attorney has said that I do have the right to make a motion; you don't even know what my motion is. I would like to have an opportunity to make a motion," he said. 


With a bang of her gavel, Fisher said, "The board is not open for a motion," and attempted to continue with the regular agenda. 


Spears interrupted Fisher and said, "You have heard Robert's Rules of Order and I have made the second," to which Fisher replied, "I have not recognized you, Mr. Spears." 


After a heated back and forth, the board voted 3-2 to amend the agenda to move executive session to the top of the agenda with Lautzenhiser, Spears and Aubra Turner voting for and Fisher and Angela Verdell against. The board then voted 4-1 to go into closed determination for executive session with Fisher the lone opposed. 


A crowd of spectators and supporters of Liddell gathered for the meeting, with a strong presence from the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Northeast Mississippi chapter of 100 Black Women. In addition to her role as president of the school board, Fisher is president of the local chapter of 100 Black Women. On the organization's website, Fisher encouraged members to come to the meeting to show support for Liddell. 


She wrote: "As part of our advocacy for equity in opportunity and rights for African-American females, we are asked to show our support for equal rights and advancement. We must also hold anyone who would attempt to diminish those rights accountable. To that end, you are asked to show your support for the Superintendent of the Columbus Municipal School District with your presence at the June 17th meeting of the Board of Trustees." 


During the lengthy executive session, Liddell and her attorney, Austin Vollor of Starkville, spoke with the board numerous times. When she was not speaking with the board, Liddell spent the evening in her office with the door closed. 


Her final meeting with the board lasted less than two minutes. When she emerged from the board room at 10:30 p.m., Liddell entered her office and left through the back door. Her attorney stayed and held hushed conversations with members of the NAACP. 


At 10:45 p.m., Fisher emerged and announced the board would enter its regular session. 


The crowd, which had dwindled from about 50 to 25, returned to the board room and sat silently as Fisher announced the superintendent was fired in a 3-2 vote.  


The meeting continued with a visibly-shaken Fisher fumbling for words at times. 


Fisher declined to comment on Liddell's firing after the meeting. 


Controversy has surrounded the embattled Superintendent for the past several weeks as The Dispatch obtained mounting evidence concerning Liddell's job performance. Those issues included Liddell's extensive travel, which resulted in her being absent for approximately one third of the school year, her use of district funds and personnel for a private party at the Trotter Center in December, evidence that she had performed outside work in violation of her contract with the district and a delay in Project 2020, her dropout prevention program which was scheduled to begin June 1 but has not acquired the necessary funding or approval from the Mississippi Department of Education. 


Liddell was appointed interim Superintendent in May 2011 when her predecessor, Dr. Del Phillips, resigned. She was named Superintendent in June 2012. 


An interim superintendent has not yet been named. 


Mississippi Department of Education Public Relations spokesperson Patrice Guilfoyle said appointing an interim is the sole responsibility of the school board. 


"Mississippi Department of Education is not involved in that process. That's a local school board issue. That's a local discussion," she said.

Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.